If you work in sales or related fields, people expect you to lie and deceive. In fact, some employers may even hire you for it.
That’s the stunning finding of a study by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Brian Gunia of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and his co-author, Emma Levine of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The paper, “Deception as Competence: The Effect of Occupational Stereotypes on the Perception and Proliferation of Deception,” was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes this year.
‘DECEPTION IN BUSINESS REMAINS PREVALENT’
“Deception remains prevalent despite its widespread vilification,” the authors write. But “if deception elicits such a wide array of negative reactions, and especially the perception of incompetence, why do we continue to see so much of it in real organizations?”
There’s a pretty extensive body of research on the topic of deception, but the researchers focus on how it’s perceived by others. Rather than condemn lying and deception out of hand, people take a more “nuanced” or pragmatic position. “Perceivers do not entirely disapprove of deceivers,” they write. “Instead, perceivers conclude that deceivers will be competent in particular occupations.”
Which occupations? Those closely connected with high-pressure sales or marketing, the researchers found. In particular, Gunia and Levine focused on jobs presumed to require a selling orientation (SO)—the use of “high-pressure persuasion tactics to elicit an immediate self-interested transaction.”
PROFESSIONALS IN SALES ARE OFTEN EXPECTED TO LIE
People expect employees in occupations that are high in selling orientation (HISO) to use deceptive tactics to reach their selling goals; that may even show they’re good at their jobs. “We suggest that perceivers will see deceivers as likely to be competent in occupations stereotyped as high in SO (HISO),” the authors write,
How so? “Some selling tactics do involve deceptive, self-interested persuasion,” the authors write candidly. “For example, an individual might deceptively and self-interestedly exaggerate a product’s benefits to persuade someone to buy it.”
That’s why, according to the six studies the researchers undertook to test their hypothesis, “despite rhetoric and research suggesting that deception is vilified,…perceivers do not entirely disapprove of deceivers. Instead, they interpret deception as a signal that the deceiver will be competent in occupations stereotyped as HISO”—sales in particular, but also other occupations that involve high-pressure selling and marketing (e.g., investment banking, advertising). In fact, deceivers may be perceived as more competent than honest individuals in occupations that require a high sales orientation. (The authors point out that these views are often stereotypes and that many forms of selling, even high-pressure selling, do not involve deception.)
SOME EMPLOYERS ACTIVELY SEEK TO HIRE DISHONEST PEOPLE
Still more worrisome: Some employers even actively hire deceptive or dishonest individuals into HISO occupations. “Rather than shunning deceivers, as research typically suggests they should, perceivers seem to seek out deceivers to complete HISO-oriented tasks,” Gunia and Levine write. “…Perceivers appear to hire deceivers into HISO occupations at elevated rates, potentially contributing to the proliferation of deception.” So, they know who they’re getting but hire them anyway.
Gunia, 38, an associate professor in management and organization at Carey, focuses his research on negotiations, ethical decision making, and sleep. He has taught classes in organizational behavior and negotiations in both the executive education and general MBA programs. He was won several awards for faculty excellence and teaching.
Having earned his BA in economics and finance from Washington University in St. Louis, he got an MS and Ph.D. in management and organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He started teaching at Johns Hopkins in 2011 and has spent his entire academic career there.
Howard R. Gold is a contributing writer at Poets&Quants. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold.